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David Bowie’s musical executor

Diplomatic and discreet, the veteran Tony Visconti, who has just released a compilation of his work, has become a role model of what a flexible producer should look like

David Bowie
Tony Visconti (left) and sound engineer Freddy Hansson, recording a T-Rex album at Rosenberg Studios.Jorgen Angel (Redferns)
Diego A. Manrique

A record producer is another one of those jobs that have lost their sheen in the digital age. Of course, producers continue to emerge for the music of the moment, although with restricted functions within large teams, which include beat creators, lyricists, chorus experts, sample hunters, etc… What is in short supply these days is a demand for the type of adventurous producer who dedicated months to each project, who traveled to remote studios with perhaps insecure or overly conceited artists, willing to navigate the Sargasso Sea of egos that can paralyze the evolution of a band.

So panoramic compilations are appreciated, such as the one summarizing the career of Tony Visconti, with his 60 years of musical activity. Produced by Tony Visconti (Edsel Records) contains 4 CDs, or 6 LPs in the reduced vinyl version: it is a summary of an amazing career marked by eclecticism and good taste. By the way, I cannot understand why recordings by Joe Cocker, Procol Harum or The Move are attributed to him, when these works go back to Visconti’s early days, when he was an assistant to the official producer, Denny Cordell (who died in 1995, so that he cannot protest).

In collections like this one, which require negotiating with multiple rights holders, it is hard to know whether missing work is due to the compiler’s decision or to the greed of record labels and managers: this may explain the omission of Morrissey or the Stranglers. It is also shocking that Carmen, a California band that electrified flamenco tunes, was included, yet Osibisa, who were pioneers of introducing West African rhythms to rock audiences, were not.

The revelation of Produced by Tony Visconti lies in how it amends his enduring image as a stubborn boy from Brooklyn who taught the British to make hard, accessible rock. He also had a tender streak, evidenced by his fondness for certain folky music: he produced Ralph McTell, Tom Paxton, the Strawbs and Mary Hopkin (she and Tony were married for 10 years). It also reveals his sympathy for the friendlier side of progressive rock: Gentle Giant, the Moody Blues, Renaissance, Rick Wakeman.

However, Visconti’s main merit for posterity lies in his close collaboration with Marc Bolan and David Bowie, two friends/enemies who emerged from mod London. He guided Bolan from his underground years, with Tyrannosaurus Rex, to his astonishing conversion into a crowd idol, leading T-Rex. The overwhelming harvest of success was soured, Visconti thought, by Bolan’s metamorphosis into a capricious, manipulative and yes, stingy creature. Besides, he refused to evolve musically and thematically.

That kind of stagnation was not a problem for Bowie, who changed his sound, image and concept practically with each album. After an initial lapse — he refused to produce Space Oddity, considering it an opportunistic song — Visconti became David’s favorite accomplice. Together they made about 14 albums, with a break of almost 20 years when Visconti got pissed: he was preparing to work on what would become Let’s Dance but Bowie did not warn him that he was already working with Nile Rodgers.

Now, Visconti unofficially occupies the role of executor of David’s recording legacy, preparing reissues and rescuing material from oblivion. But there are no revelations about the missing person: he signed a strict confidentiality contract.

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